My Summer with Petrels

Every summer students and professors from Bowdoin College join Canadian researchers and their graduate students at Kent Island to work on ecology projects. Studies involve the island’s plants, intertidal zone and nesting seabirds.

 Kent Island is in Canada’s Bay of Fundy. It’s remote. After a five-hour drive from Bowdoin’s campus in Maine, we took a ninety minute ferry to the island of Grand Manan (population 2000). At the far end of Grand Manan we boarded a lobster boat for the hour-long trip to Kent Island. The lobster boat is too big to land on Kent Island, so we switched to a smaller boat and entered the basin at high tide. Land at low tide and there’s a quarter-mile trek through mud to reach the dorm and lab.

 Birds flock to remote islands to nest because because there are no mice, rats or snakes to eat their young, only predatory birds like herring gulls. The island is also ideally located along the birds’ migratory paths.

 For 60 years, researchers have been studying Leech’s storm petrels on the island. This summer I helped collect data. Leech’s storm petrels are perfectly suited to live their entire lives at sea. They come to land only to mate and nest. On land they are clumsy – you can hear them crashing through trees as they try to get to their burrows on the island. The birds leave their nests to forage far out at sea and return in the dark to avoid being eaten. Storm petrels are monogamous and can live into their thirties. They return to their same burrow and wait for their mate from an earlier year.

 Every day I checked storm petrel burrows to see if there were birds or birds with eggs present. Petrels lay only one egg, then stay in the burrow to incubate. We left incubating birds alone for ten days so they would not abandon their egg. We removed birds that weren’t incubating from their burrows by reaching our hand deep into their holes. The petrels bit (small nip, not painful) and we extracted them gently by their beak without injuring them. We checked the birds for metal identification bands. The birds were weighed, measured and smelled. Storm petrels have a wonderful, rich, earthy smell. Once the petrels were in our hands, we always breathed in deeply, even though that was not part of the study. We smelled plenty of petrel vomit too. They regurgitated on us when we pulled them out of their burrows. This is yellow and oily with a pungent odor of dead zooplankton.

 I was especially interested in the calls petrels made when they return to the island at night. It’s a beautiful chatter. With hundreds of birds chattering at once, it can be very loud. I went out to record this chatter around midnight on dark, moonless nights. I tried to entice others to join me, especially on trips to the south end of the island, which was a mile hike through pitch-black woods.

 The summer was like a crash course in ornithology, and birding is something I’m sure I’ll enjoy for the rest of my life. I also learned how to ask answerable scientific questions, study living systems, and find beauty on every walk in the woods or hole in the ground.